Yinka Shonibare In The Midst Of Colliding Cultures

Yinka Shonibare, Nigerian Artists, African art, Contemporary Art
Yinka Shonibare. © Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography by Marcus Leith
Born in London, raised in Nigeria, trained at Central Saint Martins and Goldsmiths College, Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA) is a creative force to be reckoned with as his multifaceted oeuvre grapples with the lasting legacy of colonialism

When New York City officials removed a 19th-century statue of gynaecologist James Marion Sims—who conducted unanaesthetised experiments on enslaved women—from Central Park early this year, they needed to fill the empty space. The replacement installation could not just be commemorative—it needed to, unlike its predecessor, be culturally awakened, too. Enter the swirling, brightly printed Wind Sculpture (SG) I by Shonibare, installed in Central Park in March. The contrast between it and the old Sims sculpture couldn’t be starker. “My piece is about the different backgrounds of people coming together,” Shonibare explains. Adorned in a batik-pattern print that’s become a characteristic of Shonibare’s work, it’s a nod to fabrics now synonymous with Africa yet, ironically, originally a product of the Dutch. That complex, layered history is exactly the point. “The fabrics are a signifier of the identity of people from Africa and the African diaspora, but more importantly, how they encounter with Europe,” says Shonibare. “The textiles I use were actually produced by the Dutch and then sold to West Africans, yet they’re now known as markers of African identity. I’m very interested in the colonial relationships between Africa and Europe, and the fabrics have become a metaphor for that.”

Shonibare has weaved this fabric and print into almost of all his most iconic pieces, from installations such as The Swing (in Tate’s permanent collection) to pieces for his upcoming solo in South Africa at Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery. Entitled Ruins Decorated, the show is another example of Shonibare’s questioning of colonialism and Western superiority. “I’m looking at the legacy of classical sculpture,” Shonibare explains. “Remaking well-known classical sculptures in my signature textile patterns. It’s a way of deconstructing them because historically, classical sculpture was assumed to be white. But they weren’t; it was a German art historian called Johann Winckelmann who created this mythology around pure, white classical sculptures. And then the white classical sculptures became symbols of Western superiority.” Included in the show will be a piece called The African Library. “It is a collection of 4,000 books wrapped in the colourful textile I use in my work,’ adds Shonibare. “In the library are the names of people who’ve fought in the independence struggles of Africa. People who’ve made significant contributions to all of the African communities.”

Yinka Shonibare

Butterfly Kid (Girl) IV. 2017

It’s interesting that Shonibare exhibits so much commentary on colonialism yet isn’t a proponent of one of the hottest sociological ideas right now: cultural appropriation. For Shonibare, the two Cs are not mutually exclusive. “The legacy of colonialism lingers on,” he explains. “There is no equity of wealth yet in the world. There are wars still breaking out that are the result of the history of many of those countries. Global trade is still colonial. So the issue is ongoing.” But as for cultural appropriation—adopting elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture—is this typically a byproduct of colonialism? “I’m not much bothered,” Shonibare responds, simply. He points to the fact that in his upcoming South African solo show, he’s not just remaking classical sculptures using his signature printed textile but also incorporating globes for heads. “Because throughout history cultures have influenced each other. The Romans got from the Greeks, and so on,” he says.

For Shonibare, this borrowing—or cultural appropriation—is at the core of creative art. “Artists should feel free to use whatever they want to use,” Shonibare continues. “I parody European heritage all of the time. Picasso relied heavily on African imagery. I don’t see the problem. Restricting yourself and feeling like you can’t use images from other cultures is the most uncreative thing that you can do. As long as you’re not insulting people, you should have the freedom to borrow. Artists do that all the time. Without this, you wouldn’t be able to create anything—you wouldn’t be able to make films or fashion—because you’d be stuck in your own, restricted heritage and imagery. That doesn’t make for very interesting art.”

Yinka Shonibare

Revolution Kid (Fox Girl). 2012

And while Shonibare clearly believes in the power of art—he isn’t one to shy away from controversial conversations through his work—he doesn’t believe it’s an artist’s role to educate. “Art is a form of poetry and I don’t think that the role of an artist is to lecture or dictate what people should be thinking,” he explains. “Artists produce engaging works that hopefully raise questions, but we also entertain.”

Another thing that’s striking about Shonibare is his prolific success despite paralysis on one side of his body—the result of contracting transverse myelitis (inflammation of the spinal chord) when he was 18. While Shonibare uses the help of assistants to produce his work, he is fully immersed in the process. “Of course my disability impacts how I organise my work—I do have to delegate a lot. I design things and then have them made,” he explains. “But most contemporary artists work in a similar way. If you’re making a lot of exhibitions it’s natural that you can’t physically make everything you need to make, so at some point you’ll require some support.”

Yinka Shonibare

Wind Sculpture in Central Park

Shonibare’s physical limitations have certainly never been a reason for him not to pursue his passion. “Everybody has a degree of constraint: it could be psychological, it could be emotional,” he points out. “You have to adapt yourself to whatever constraint you may have and then do the kind of work that can accommodate those constraints. Disability is just a way of doing things—you have a different way of doing things. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the things you want to do—you just find the most suitable way to do it.”

And stop, Shonibare hasn’t. In fact, aside from 2018 projects including solos in South Africa and South Korea, group shows from the US to the UK and heavy involvement, as usual, in the Royal Academy’s summer programme, Shonibare is also in the throes of building an artist residence space in Lagos, Nigeria—from scratch. “It’s an exciting project where international artists [will be able to] go and do residencies,” he enthuses. “So that’s really occupying my mind at the moment. We’re building a gallery and rooms for artists to use.” Completion is still a few years away, but it’s yet another example of what grounds Shonibare’s approach: opening international dialogues, exploring and exposing cultures to one another, and interrogating how we see this exchange— without ever lecturing. And that’s key now for Africa: building artists’ spaces on the continent. This is how you give back. Goodman-gallery.com

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Yinka Shonibare, Nigerian Artists, African art, Contemporary Art
Yinka Shonibare. © Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography by Marcus Leith